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Here is your first tip for saving money: for a given itinerary, travelling independently will be cheaper than travelling with a tour group. The catch of course is that you then need to research and plan the trip yourself. This special report will help you!

The tips below assume that you are travelling independently, making your own bookings, and planning your own trip.

Transportation

Use a search aggregator

The first thing to do once you’ve determined your destination and approximate dates, is to go to a site like kayak.com and do a search. These sites are called aggregators because they search many other sites (usually consolidators, not the airlines themselves). When you select a flight, it takes you to the appropriate consolidator (such as Expedia, or CheapTickets) to book it.

Once you’ve found a flight that looks good, always check the airline’s website for comparison. Occasionally, the airline will have a web price lower than the consolidators. Don’t even ask me why this happens! If the prices are similar, you may want to check the booking conditions, such as fees for cancellations or changes. It may be easier to deal with the airline directly if you need to make changes later.

Fly mid-week

If possible select “My dates are flexible” or equivalent in the aggregator to see results that span a week or so. Typically tickets are cheaper mid-week (Tuesday to Thursday) and possibly Saturday. A good rule of thumb: the less people are flying to your destination on that day and month, the cheaper the price. If you have to select a specific date, choose a Tuesday or Wednesday to see how low prices get.

You can usually save between $50 and $100 on a return flight by flying mid-week.

Inconvenient times such as very early morning, or flights with long layovers or multiple connections, also tend to be cheaper.

 Avoid taxis if possible

Beside being more expensive than other options and possibly requiring bargaining, taxis are sometimes unsafe. Indeed, in some countries anybody with a car can call himself a taxi driver. In Mexico, muggings and robberies of tourists are common in unlicensed taxis. As well, the seat belts of most taxis in developing nations do not work, and some drivers appear to be on a suicide mission.

Research your options. Many cities have good public transit, including train links to the airport. Failing that, the airport might be served by shuttle buses that go directly to the centre of town. Every country will have buses between its main cities, and in developing nations, even small towns and villages are served by buses as few people have cars.

If you get into a taxi that doesn’t have a taximeter (or refuses to use it) and you haven’t bought a prepaid ticket (e.g. at the airport), be prepared to bargain.

Taxis, Cuba

Okay, sometimes taxis are just too cute to resist! (La Habana, Cuba)

Accommodation

Get out of the first world!

In many developing countries, you can get a very decent room for between $20 and $30, often less in smaller towns. And yes, this includes an ensuite bathroom and possibly a balcony. You won’t get 5-star luxury for that price anywhere, but what do you really need beside a clean and comfortable room to sleep in at night? Besides, stars are a rating of services offered by a property (shops, spa, room service) and are not necessarily related to how pleasant your accommodation and experience will be. In fact, I prefer small local hotels or family-owned guesthouses to large international hotels for the local contacts they provide.

Regions where this is the rule rather than the exception are Mexico (outside of the popular resorts), Central America, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Most of these small local places have websites by now. Or you can book through a site such as HostelBooker.com (not just for hostels, and no booking fee) or Booking.com.

Hotel room, Siem Reap

Hotel room for $25/night in Siem Reap (gateway to Angkor Wat), Cambodia

Ask for a discount on a long hotel stay

If you are planning to stay in a hotel for a week or more, ask for a discount. In Cuenca, Ecuador, I paid $25 instead of $37/night on a big ensuite room in the colonial centre using this technique. The only other condition was that I pay my week in advance.

Also ask for a discount if you are travelling off-season (when the hotel has trouble filling its rooms).

Use AirBnB

When travelling in an expensive country, consider using AirBnB instead of a hotel. With AirBnB, you rent a room or a whole apartment from a private owner. The prices are lower than a hotel room, and you often have access to a local person to help you plan your visit, as well as good conversation if you want it! I’ve rented a whole basement apartment in Kingston (Canada) for CAD$50 a day, self-contained apartments in Athens (Greece) for much less, and a huge room with ensuite bathroom in Merida (Mexico) for half that price.

Use the filters to turn on “Superhost”, which will display only listings from superior hosts that have garnered many top reviews.

Stay somewhere for free

If you lack friends or acquaintances in a place you wish to visit, there is always couchsurfing.org, and hospitalityclub.org, which let you stay for free with strangers. (And as the staying goes, it could turn out that “Strangers are friends you haven’t met yet”.) These organizations are made up of travellers willing to host other travellers for free and in turn be hosted when they travel. You have no obligation to host anyone you don’t want to, but the system is based on reciprocity. Just like AirBnB, trust is created by providing references and getting references after you have hosted or been hosted.

If you want your own place, and you like pets, consider house-sitting. In exchange for free accommodation, you commit to taking care of someone’s home and pets for a specified amount of time (anywhere from 2 days to a year). You start by building up a profile on a site such as TrustedHouseSitters, then check the daily alerts for postings that interest you. (Read my primer on how to become a house-sitter and get free accommodation.)

Meals

Patronize local markets

Visit the local market (often an attraction in its own right) and have lunch or breakfast (or brunch) at one of the food stalls. Lots of variety, and cheap prices.

Self-cater

Self-cater some of the time, especially in more expensive countries. Buy supplies and picnic in a park, cook in your hostel’s kitchen, or use your own kitchen if you’re renting an apartment.

Choose your restaurant carefully

Find restaurants off the “main drag” and avoid the ones with “touts” (the people with menu in hand that stand on the curb and try to entice you to come in). In Europe, restaurants or cafés located on a street corner or main tourist street are often pricier.

Places with no decor, plastic chairs, and nonchalant service will be the cheapest. If you can’t read the menu, you’re probably getting the local price, rather than an inflated tourist price.

Choose the daily menu or set meal (“menu du jour”, “menu del día”) if it’s available (usually for lunch only). It’s cheaper than buying à la carte and you’ll probably get served faster too.

Local eating, Kuala Lumpur

Eating with the locals in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Sightseeing/Shopping

Visit museums on their “free day”

Most museums have a free evening, or day. Some are always free! Check their website in advance. Even the Louvre has a free day (first Saturday of the month, from 6:00 to 9:45 PM).

Look for free attractions

It is surprising the number of things you can do for free in a given city: walking tours, markets, exhibits, wine tastings, beaches, music performances, churches and other public buildings. The web, a good guidebook, as well as the Tourist Information Office (once you’re on site) should have the details.

Of course walking around and enjoying parks and other green spaces is always free.

The Louvre, Paris

The Louvre, Paris. Free on the evening of the first Saturday of every month!

Shop strategically

If you are shopping in a bazaar, a souq, or most markets in the developing world, you won’t see price tags. That means prices are negotiable, that is, you are expected to bargain. The first price you are offered might be two or ten times what the merchant is willing to sell for. Don’t accept it. Offer a much lower price and let the merchant squirm and complain, and then offer you an amount in between, and so forth. A whole post could be written about bargaining in markets. Don’t worry, a merchant will never sell at a loss. All that squirming and drama is for effect only.

You may be able to get a better price if you are the first sale of the day, or show up just before closing time when they are anxious to go home. Conversely, good luck if you arrive at the same time as the crowd disembarking from a nearby cruise ship.

Other tips

Drop by the tourist office

Besides asking what free activities are going on around town, pick up some brochures and a tourist guide. Look for discount coupons on restaurants, activities, etc.

Tourist Office, Kingston

Tourist Offices are usually friendly places (Kingston, Canada)

 Get your mobile phone unlocked

First, you need a tri-band or quad-band GSM phone to be able to use the different networks all over the world. (One exception is the United States where CDMA technology provides more coverage than GSM – see here for an explanation.)

If your mobile phone isn’t already unlocked, get it unlocked before leaving on your trip. This can be done by your provider, for a fee, or by an independent shop (for an even smaller fee).  Once this is done, you can buy a new SIM card for a few dollars in most countries, and recharge it with prepaid time when needed. You’ll get a local phone number and will pay local prices for your local calls.

If you do not do this, your phone will either not work at your destination, or it will start roaming when you try to make a phone call. Roaming charges can be tremendously expensive. (You may be able to purchase a roaming plan from your provider, but I have not personally tried this.)

Wrapping up

That’s it for now! Hopefully this gives you a good starting point to travel more and to travel further. To really travel cheap, you have to get out of the first world. Latin America and Southeast Asia are mostly safe and relatively easy places to travel around on a small budget.

For more destination-specific ways to save money, check out BigTravelNut often. “Like” my Facebook page where I announce new content as soon as it is published. The BigTravelNut newsletter, which you just signed up for, will be delivered to your inbox on the first Friday of the month.

If there is a particular topic you would like to know more about, please let me know. The goal of BigTravelNut is to help its readers travel further and cheaper on their own, so your input is important to me!

In the mean time, you may wish to check out the following sections:


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